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Nouwen blesses all at L'Arche

Henri Nouwen tells a touching story about the power of blessing to transform human lives.

After a successful career as a seminary professor and best-selling author, Nouwen, a Roman Catholic priest, made a dramatic life change.  Leaving the academic world behind, he went to work as a chaplain at the L'Arche Daybreak community in Toronto.  This is one of a worldwide family of L'Arche communities, founded by French Christian visionary Jean Vanier, where severely mentally and physically disabled people live in community with those of normal abilities.  In such a place, caregiving moves in both directions, with those in a caregiving role often feeling like they are the ones being cared for.

Henri describes how, one day, a disabled community member named Janet came up and asked him for a blessing. Henri was distracted by other things, so he quickly traced the sign of the cross on her forehead.

"No," protested Janet. "I want a real blessing!”

Henri understood, then, how he had been insensitive to her need.  He promised that, at the next prayer service, he would have a special blessing for her.

At the end of the prayer service, about thirty people were sitting in a circle on the floor.  Henri announced, “Janet has asked me for a special blessing.”

He didn't quite know what she was seeking from him, but her next move left no doubt.  She walked up to him and wrapped her arms around him.  As he embraced her in return, her slight form was almost covered by the folds of the white robe he wore while leading worship.

As they held each other, Henri said “Janet, I want you to know that you are God's Beloved Daughter. You are precious in God's eyes. Your beautiful smile, your kindness to the people in your house, and all the good things you do show what a beautiful human being you are. I know you feel a little low these days and that there is some sadness in your heart, but I want you to remember who you are: a very special person, deeply loved by God and all the people who are here with you.”

Janet raised her head and looked at him.  Her beaming smile told him that she had truly understood and received the blessing.

What happened next was unexpected.  As Janet returned to her place, another woman raised her hand.  She, too, wanted a blessing. She stood up and embraced Henri, too, laying her face against his chest.  After that, a great many more of the disabled members of the community took their turn, coming up for the same sort of blessing.

For Henri, the most touching moment was when one of the assistants, a twenty-four-year-old college student, raised his hand and asked, “And what about me?” John was a big, burly young man, an athlete.  Henri did the same with him, wrapping his arms around him and saying, “John, it is so good that you are here. You are God's Beloved Son…"

John looked back with tears in his eyes and simply said, “Thank you, thank you very much.”

- Based on a story told by Henri J.M. Nouwen, Life of the Beloved (New York: Crossroad, 1992), pp. 70-72.